Things are as bad as they look.
That’s the safe conclusion for Democrats to draw from the party’s apparent loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial election Tuesday night. Joe Biden’s approval rating has been historically bad for several weeks now. Other polls have shown that a majority of voters are extremely concerned about inflation and hold the president responsible for it; that the public trusts Republicans over Democrats on “the economy” by an 18-point margin; and that only a quarter of the public thinks the Build Back Better agenda is going to help “people like them.”
In a world where all these things were true, you would expect GOP candidates to win elections they ordinarily would lose. On Tuesday night in Old Dominion, Glenn Youngkin did just that. One year ago, Virginia backed Joe Biden by 10 points. Today, it is the kind of state a Republican can win a governor’s race in by a comfortable margin.
Of course, drawing safe conclusions isn’t much fun. After all, such conclusions rarely, unambiguously prove that anyone’s long-held opinions are now more right than ever before. And we in the punditry business prefer to conduct election analysis as though it were a kind of competitive Rorschach test, in which contestants spar over whose ideologically-flattering projections reveal the blot’s true essence. So, Terry McAuliffe lost Virginia because House progressives delayed a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill; or because Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema sabotaged the Build Back Better agenda; or because McAuliffe ran an anti-Trump campaign instead of focusing on real issues; or because the woke left wants to teach white kindergarteners that they are the subhuman spawn of Yakub.
I’m not saying these takes are equally plausible, or that any are necessarily wrong (though the last seems like a stretch). But I think it’s worth dwelling on the actual unambiguous implications of Tuesday’s result, because they’re quite remarkable. Youngkin’s victory is not a shock, if one trusted the available polling and assumed that American politics was operating as normal. But the normality of American politics in this moment is somewhat insane.
The Republican Party spent most of the past five years abetting an openly corrupt president’s unabashed assaults on the rule of law and electoral democracy. Between the day that Virginia backed Biden by 10 points, and the day it elected Glenn Youngkin, a Republican president egged on an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, while trying to retain power by antidemocratic means. After Trump’s putsch left dead bodies in Congress’s halls, a majority of the GOP’s House delegation voted to nullify the 2020 election’s results. Between that day and this November, the Republican Party did not disavow Trump. Rather, it excommunicated his sharpest critics.
Democrats needed this to be untenable. They needed it to be impossible for the GOP to simultaneously broaden its base and remain in the good graces of Donald Trump and his core constituents. Which is to say: They needed Republicans to have finally gone too far, and disqualified themselves from the advantages that the out-of-power party typically enjoys in our two-party system.
Democrats needed this because the party is otherwise in quite rough shape. Urban-rural polarization has saddled Democrats with a coalition that is historically underrepresented in the House and Senate. The decline of ticket-splitting and nationalization of political media, meanwhile, has made it extremely difficult for Democratic candidates to compete in hostile territory by hewing to local issues, and distancing themselves from the party’s national brand. Finally, education polarization has, for the moment, awarded the party an unprecedentedly severe disadvantage in the Electoral College.
If the GOP is not caught in an impossible bind — if it doesn’t actually need to choose between retaining the enthusiasm of the “Stop the Steal” crowd and winning over “moderate” voters — then it is poised to retake the Senate by 2025 and hold it for a long time thereafter. In fact, if the party need not choose between these imperatives, it has an excellent shot of dominating federal politics for the better half of this decade.
That Republicans just engineered a roughly 12-point swing in Virginia suggests that the party can indeed have it both ways.
We live in a country with a two-party system, an unusually conservative political culture, and a vast rightwing infotainment complex. In this context, Republicans’ public support can’t fall that far. When Democrats are in power, the GOP will remain the only vessel for nonpartisan voters to register their discontent. Meanwhile, in a country with our racial history and urban-rural divisions, grounds for culture war will never be hard to find, and the market for rightwing revanchism will always be sizable. The political universe is not a just one. Karma is no protection against the GOP. And neither are demographics. There is no alternative to ordinary politics.
If the Democratic Party were not already staring down massive, structural disadvantages, then Youngkin’s win Tuesday would not be all that ominous. Economic and public health conditions are likely to improve between now and the 2022 midterms. It’s normal for the in-power party to suffer some embarrassing defeats in off-year elections. And it’s normal for solidly blue states to elect Republican governors.
But Democrats need for things to be not normal. And, contrary to the party’s Trump-era mantra, America’s electoral dynamics still are.